Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Why So Many People Get The Big Bang Wrong (Including Atheists)



As an atheist I hear it all the time: NO ONE CREATED SOMETHING OUT OF NOTHING? This is the name of the first chapter in Christian Apologist Frank Turok's book Stealing God. Other variations of the question go, "How do you get something from nothing?" or "How does nothing create everything?" or still yet, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" The popular view out there especially among theists is that atheists believe "nothing" somehow created everything. If you're an atheist in any kind of situation talking or debating with theists you can be sure some variation of these questions will come up at some point, and you've got to be prepared to give a response. Of course "I don't know" is always a respectable answer, but to me there is a short sound byte answer that can be given and it relies on refuting a common misunderstanding of the big bang that so many of us make, including many atheists.

First, some of these questions assume that the ontological default state should be nothing, and not something, and theists who ask these questions will almost certainly not have shown any justification why that should be so. I don't think one can even come up with an objective prior probability for such an assumption. Second, many of these questions usually rely on a faulty assumption about the big bang. Many people falsely assume the the big bang entails there there was a state of nothingness, and then *poof* you get a big bang. That's not what it says. That's not even what inflationary theory says. They both simply say that there was a first moment when t=0. There wasn't anything prior to that; there was no state of "nothing" from which everything came out of. And since space and time are tied together, as Einstein showed, with no space prior to t=0, there was no time. So you can say that the universe always existed in that at every moment of time the universe exists. In this sense, the universe is omnitemporal. That means there was always something. Somethingness might be the ontological default, and not nothingness.

So no atheist must be committed to the view that "nothing created everything." This is an absurd parody of the atheist position on cosmic origins, and far too many religious apologists and atheists alike believe this. Now of course it is always possible that there was spacetime prior to the big bang. If there's an infinite amount of spacetime prior to our universe's big bang, then most of these questions are mute anyway. And if there is a finite amount of spacetime prior to our universe's big bang, the same principle applies to the absolute origin.



Monday, May 23, 2016

Quote Of The Day: Sean Carroll On How Causality Isn't Fundamental


As shocking as it may seem, causality is not a fundamental concept but a derived one. When we speak of causality in everyday life, we're talking about an emergent phenomena. This is why all the "first cause" arguments for god fail. They make the mistake of taking the everyday experiences and phenomena we observe that don't really exist fundamentally and try to turn them into "metaphysical principles." From Carroll's paper Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists:

From the perspective of modern science, events don’t have purposes or causes; they simply conform to the laws of nature. In particular, there is no need to invoke any mechanism to “sustain” a physical system or to keep it going; it would require an additional layer of complexity for a system to cease following its patterns than for it to simply continue to do so. Believing otherwise is a relic of a certain metaphysical way of thinking; these notions are useful in an informal way for human beings, but are not a part of the rigorous scientific description of the world. Of course scientists do talk about “causality”, but this is a description of the relationship between patterns and boundary conditions; it is a derived concept, not a fundamental one. If we know the state of a system at one time, and the laws governing its dynamics, we can calculate the state of the system at some later time. You might be tempted to say that the particular state at the first time “caused” the state to be what it was at the second time; but it would be just as correct to say that the second state caused the first. According to the materialist worldview, then, structures and patterns are all there are — we don’t need any ancillary notions.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

George Carlin Was Wrong On Voting


I've been running into many people lately who say voting is a meaningless process when I bring up politics. One guy I was talking to recently brought up George Carlin who was very critical on the voting process (among other things). George Carlin said repeatedly in his standup gigs and on TV and other media outlets that voting is pointless because the game is rigged, the country's ruled by a small group of people who have all the real power, and they've set up a system to give you the illusion that you actually have a choice when you go out and vote, but you don't.

Now look. I'm a huge Carlin fan. I love his stand up and his general philosophy. He's genuinely funny as fuck. But he's wrong on voting. First, let me say that I partially agree with him that there are people running the country who don't give a crap about regular working folks like me. This is not to say that there's some secret conspiracy, like the Bilderbergs, or the Illuminati. There is some truth to that but I'm not a conspiracy nut. There are various competing groups in various areas of the world in various sectors who have a disproportionate amount of power. That's always been the case. But aside from this partial truth, to not vote is not going to make the situation any better for thinking and working people who want rational policies. It will make it worse. Here's why.

We have to acknowledge that not all politicians are the same. No one in their right mind would seriously believe that a Ted Cruz presidency would've had the exact same laws and policies passed as a Bernie Sanders presidency. If you believe that you're insane. These two men couldn't be more ideologically different. The same is true of past elections. Do you really think that a John McCain presidency would've had the exact same laws passed that president Obama passed? Do you think universal healthcare, and same sex marriage, and the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would've been passed under president McCain? Do you think McCain would've appointed the same Supreme Court Justices as Obama did? You know the same-sex marriage decision came down to just one vote don't you? A one vote difference would have made the country completely different. Elections matter, and presidents appoint Supreme Court judges and Congress votes them in, and you vote-in the president, the senators, and the congressmen and women.

If you don't think your vote counts, think again. The reason why Bernie Sanders didn't get more votes than Hillary Clinton is because his base is among young people and too many young people have bought this meme that all politicians are the same and the game is all rigged and so your vote doesn't matter, so don't vote. Nothing could be more insane. This guarantees that you will never get your way in the political system. In case you don't know, the people who are not buying this meme are the older religious white conservatives who often vote for religions Christian dominionists who want to turn the US into their Christian fantasy land. The religious right in this country wants to live in a very very different America than secular liberals like me.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

How To Think Rationally About Claims


I've recently encountered many people who are otherwise very intelligent, but who, for one reason or another, came to believe very foolish things, like libertarian free will, or that we have a soul. It's not that they're stupid or anything, it's mostly due to them just lacking information or having the wrong information in the subject matter, and/or are suffering from poor reasoning skills.

Knowing how to think critically is absolutely essential to being a rational person. We hear numerous claims everyday. But how do we make sense of them? How do we evaluate whether there is any truth to them or not? Well, the answer is long, and I'm in no position to give a full assessment of all the relevant factors. But I can outline a few very important things everyone should know when evaluating the validity of a claim.

Let's start with the claim that the soul exists. By 'soul' I don't mean anything in the metaphoric sense. I'm talking about the traditional notion of a soul, the kind that Descartes believed in: the invisible ghost that resides in our bodies, that animates us, and gives our intellect. This is a belief mostly left over from religion, but is still believed by a surprising number of educated people today. One way to evaluate a claim like this is to ask yourself, if it were true, what would have to be the case? In other words, if souls were real, what would have to be the case logically and scientifically? Let's explore this.

If souls were real, it would have to be the case that the immaterial substance that made up the soul—whatever it is—had to be able to overcome the natural forces in and between the atoms that make up your body. That means there would have to be extra forces at work that apply to the atoms in your body that do not apply to the atoms that make up inanimate matter, like rocks. This echos a view once popular among philosophers and biologists until the end of the 19th century known as vitalism. On vitalism there is something fundamentally different about living things and non-living things. Living things have a life energy that non-living things don't. This would have to be the case—at least for humans—if souls exist.

But the relentless progress of science has shown that this is not the case. There are no special forces or energies that exist in living things that non-living things do not have. There is no life energy out there, despite what all the Deepak Chopras of the world insist. Vitalism has been utterly discredited as an accurate description of reality. All the particles that make up you and I and rocks and trees are made up of the same three things — protons, neutrons, and electrons, that's it. And all the forces that govern them are the electromagnetic force, and the strong and the weak nuclear forces. Gravity is the forth force but is really not a force, it's the curvature of spacetime. Those are the fundamental components that make up everything in your everyday experience and there is no room for anything else. This information has just not gotten out there into the popular understanding of science, but in time it will. The bottom line is this — we fully understand the particles and forces that make up you and I and rocks and trees and planets and there is no room for anything else that can have a causal impact on the atoms that make up your body, like a soul. That is one idea that science has falsified, and we know this through the proper way of reasoning about claims by philosophizing on what would have to be the case if the claim were true.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Big Picture Tour



Last week I saw physicist Sean Carroll again for the first stop on his book tour for The Big Picture: On the origins of life meaning and the universe itself at the Bell House in Brooklyn. His latest book is basically a defense of naturalism from a scientist's perspective on how we should see the "big picture" of existence, life, and meaning, in a way firmly grounded by, and compatible with science—but with lots of philosophy thrown in—which is definitely needed in public discourse of this nature. I've been waiting a long time for a book just like this to come out because I think it's very important for the naturalist to be able to have a coherent explanation of reality fully compatible with human experience and with science. I'm also very grateful that Carroll is not allergic to philosophy like Lawrence Krauss is. Philosophy is absolutely essential to having a coherent worldview and I personally am deeply invested in having a worldview as a naturalist from the most fundamental ontology all the way up to the higher level ontologies like sociology and politics. My goal is to eventually work my way to the higher level philosophies over time and I hope this book can significantly help me with rational thinking on how to tie them all in together.

One of the interesting points Carroll argues early on is that notions like "cause and effect" are nowhere to be found in the fundamental laws of physics, they are just a way of describing reality as we see them from our human perspectives. This is very important, because for one thing, if there is no cause and effect as is commonly understood in our experience, all the "first cause" arguments for the existence of god go out the window. I've been coming to the realization that cause and effect aren't really as they seem on my own through my study of Special Relativity. In a block universe, there are simply just worldtubes in spacetime, and one point on the worldtube doesn't really cause a later point on the worldtube. What causality really is would seem to have to be the relationships of intersecting worldtubes as they precede each other or intertwine with another. For example, asking "why do I exist now?" would be explained by the fact that at an earlier event in spacetime my parents had sex. That was the "cause" that resulted in my birth and existence now – but only in the sense that if you trace my worldtube back in spacetime to its origin it’s preceded by my parent’s worldtubes and thus that establishes the "causal" relationship. This is a profound insight that radically changes our notion of causality. The traditional notion we ascribe to our everyday experiences simply doesn't exist.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Special Relativity Lesson 1: Time Dilation Is Symmetric


I generated so many emails in my debate on Special Relativity that I have all this content about it sitting around. I just realized that it's best that I use it as material for short blog posts that can serve as educational lessons for learning some of the basic concepts in SR. It's possible to understand SR from a conceptual framework without knowing any of the math. The math certainly helps fully understand the theory, but I think that for the general public it's at least better to know the basic ontology of what entails from SR by understanding it conceptually rather than not understanding anything at all.

For this first lesson, I will explain how time dilation is symmetric. This lesson expects you to have some basic familiarity and understanding of the concepts in Special Relativity, like an inertial frame, a light clock, a spacetime diagram, and what a worldline is, etc. It is not intended to be a full lesson from which you can learn the theory in its entirely.

In Special Relativity, time dilation is symmetric. For two inertial observers in relative motion their clocks will slow down at a rate equal to each other. Using screenshots I've taken from this video, I will explain how this works.

We first start out with a 3D representation of time in a spacetime diagram showing the position of two light clocks held by two observers moving relative to one another. One is held by Albert Einstein who is standing on a train platform, and the other is held by Hendrik Lorentz who is standing on a train moving relative to Einstein.

Image 1

Image 1 above shows the relationship between the two. The zigzag pattern of the yellow lines are the worldlines of the light in their light clocks. They are the paths of the light through space and time, or spacetime.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far? Yes


This weekend I'll be hosting a debate on political correctness and on whether it has gone too far — which is gotten me in a fix because as the host I'm expected to me impartial. I make it no secret that I think modern PC has gone too far. Political Correctness is defined as:

the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Let's look at a few examples of where I think it has:

  • Debating/Open Dialogue: Recently, when a debate over campus sexual assault was organized at Brown University, some women on the campus feared such a dialogue would enable trigger warnings and under the university's guide were given a safe space room to retreat to equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as reported by the New York Times.
  • Clapping: As reported by ListVerseThe National Union of Students Women’s Campaign, a feminist college student group in Britain, announced in March 2015 that they would ban clapping at their future conferences held at UK colleges. The feminist group claimed that the act of clapping could “trigger some people’s anxiety,” and therefore should be banned from all of their conferences. Instead, the feminist students instructed those who attend conferences to use jazz hands—to wave their hands silently in the air—when they wished to display approval.
  • Cultural appropriation: As reported by ListVerseTrouble began for a band called Shokazoba when they were scheduled to play a Halloween concert at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Shokazoba plays a genre of music called Afrobeat, which is a fusion of funk and jazz music with African rhythms. However, this style proved to be the band’s undoing because of one problem. The band’s members are mostly white.
  • Microaggressions: As reported by The College Fix: The University of California's president recently declared some staples of small talk to be inherently racist or sexist. Saying “America is the land of opportunity,” “There is only one race, the human race” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” are among a long list of alleged microaggressions faculty leaders of the University of California system have been instructed not to say. Other sayings deemed unacceptable include:
    • “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”
    • “Where are you from or where were you born?”
    • “Affirmative action is racist.”
    • “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
  • Due process: Under pressure from the Obama administration, some universities have abandoned due process in favor of a guilty until proven innocent attitude in sexual assault cases. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, colleges that refuse to curtail the due process of the accused may lose federal funding. Through an interpretation of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act universities will be strongly discouraged from questioning or cross examining the accuser. 
  • Feminism: Critics of modern day third wave feminism, like Christina Hoff Summers, who challenge popularly believed statistics like that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted on campus, or that women earn 77 cents on the dollar to men, make “trigger warnings” by their very presence on college campuses and are banned or protested against from speaking.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Andrew Seidel: America Is NOT A Christian Nation


Not sure if I blogged this before, but just in case I haven't it's worth the watch. Andrew Seidel nicely dispels the myth that America is a Christian nation.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Everything Wrong With Political Correctness In A Nutshell



Monday, May 2, 2016

How Do We End Corruption In Our Political System?


I thought this was worth posting and not just tweeting. How do we end corruption in our political system? Here's a rational solution in the form of 5 steps.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Quote Of The Day: The Flow Of Time And Illusion


Reconciling our subjective experience of the flow of time with the fact that there is no flow of time, or any distinction between the past, present, or future in the fundamental laws of physics is perhaps one of our biggest challenges. If time is static, as is suggested by our best physical theories, why does it seem to flow as if it's dynamic? And if time flows, why doesn't science confirm that? Why does the universe seem to conspire against us? Physicist Gene Tracy gives us some insight, from his article in Aeon, A Science Without Time. I've kept its original font because it came out looking so good on my site.



It’s possible that our experience of the flow of time is like our experience of colour. A physicist would say that colour does not exist as an inherent property of the world. Light has a variety of wavelengths, but they have no inherent property of ‘colour’. The things in the world absorb and emit and scatter photons, granules of light, of various wavelengths. It is only when our eyes intersect a tiny part of that sea of radiation, and our brain gets to work on it, that ‘colour’ emerges. It is an internal experience, a naming process, an activity of our brain trying to puzzle things out.
So the flow of time might be a story our brain creates, trying to make sense of chaos. In a 2013 paper, the physicists Leonard Mlodinow of Caltech and Todd Brun of the University of Southern California go even further and argue that any physical thing that has the characteristics of a memory will tend to align itself with the thermodynamic arrow of time, which in turn is defined by the behaviour of extremely large numbers of particles. According to this theory, it is no puzzle that we remember the past but not the future, even though the microscopic laws of nature are the same going forward or backward in time, and the past and future both exist. The nature of large systems is to progress toward increasing entropy – a measure of disorder, commonly experienced as the tendency of hot or cold objects to come into equilibrium with their surroundings. Increasing entropy means that a memory of the past is dynamically stable, whereas a memory of the future is unstable.
In this interpretation, we are unable to see the future not because it is impossible to do so, but because it is as unlikely as seeing a broken window heal itself, or as a tepid cup of tea taking energy from the atoms of the surrounding room and spontaneously beginning to boil. It is statistically extremely, extremely unlikely.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My thoughts On The Anti-LGBT Laws


Recently, several American states, almost all of them in the South, have passed so-called "bathroom" laws against transgendered persons from being able to use the bathrooms of the gender they identify with. The laws, they say, are intended to protect women and girls from being victimized by men who will dress up like women just to enter a female bathroom for the purpose of assaulting or harassing them. To date, I don't think there has been a single case of such an incident ever being reported in the US.

But regardless of lack of evidence that there are men dressing up as women to victimize women in bathrooms, these "bathroom" laws were passed and I don't think many of these conservative lawmakers have fully realized the consequences of these laws they're passing. At least one potential problem came to my mind immediately once I heard about them.


Meet Buck. Buck Angel that is. Buck is a trans-male — he was born as a female but identifies as a male. He has a vagina. Under the new bathroom laws, Buck, and all other trans-men who were born female, would be legally required to use the women's bathroom. How do you think women are going to react when they see trans-men like Buck in a women's bathroom? They are going to think a man has entered and some of them will call the police. And trans-men like Buck might get arrested over and over again and each time have to prove their birth gender by showing the police their vagina. That is a very degrading and humiliating prospect when the obvious solution is to let them use the bathroom of the gender that they identify with. I'm not sure the lawmakers have considered this. And I'm not sure that they realize such a policy could make it easier for real men to enter a women's bathroom since they could be posing as a trans-male. There are also many trans-women out there that can pass as a natural woman and for me seeing one in a men's bathroom might give me a second look. I personally have no problem with trans-women in a men's bathroom, but not all men might be.

That's one reason why I think these anti-LGBT bathroom laws are not made with common sense in mind and will very likely lead to unintended consequences. North Carolina's law goes even further and prevents local municipalities from passing their own laws preventing these bathroom laws; Mississippi's law allows any person or business to deny services to same-sex couples, people who engage in premarital sex, or transgendered people under the guise of "religious freedom." They also allow employers to fire employees merely for being gay.

Oh Mississippi, you never fail to show the world how regressive you are.

This also means that I could be fired for being an atheist if my employer wants to on religious grounds. And I can be fired for having a sexual relationship out of marriage. This is madness. Since many theists often accuse atheism of being a "religion," then shouldn't I be able to fire Christians or deny them services based on my sincerely held "religious" belief that Christianity is immoral? Would any conservative law maker take that seriously?

When you offer a service to the general public, you must serve the general public. I'm a vegetarian. I'm against eating meat. And at my job I'm required to help companies that sell meat products make more money, enabling more meat eating. This is against my personal beliefs. But do I refuse to offer services to these companies? No. I even had to help a Christian company whose mission it is to strengthen faith in Christ make more money through the company I work for recently. Did I protest and refuse to support them on account of my anti-theism? No. I did my job. I don't make personal choices against customers at work. I was hired to perform a service and I perform that service for everybody regardless of whether their business conflicts with my personal beliefs. If I find that my beliefs conflict with the duties of my job, I should either quit or be fired. So the cashier who won't checkout pork products or alcohol products because they conflict with their beliefs should either quit their job or be fired. And the county clerk who feels it is against their beliefs to issue a marriage licence to a same sex couple should either quit or be fired. We all have to sometimes enable those who do things that violate our beliefs due to our jobs. And prepending the word "religious" to those beliefs doesn't make them any more important.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

MEME TIME: What's The Problem With Complaining About Climate Change While Eating Meat?



Basically, eating meat and fish are the single biggest contributors to man-made climate change. So if stopping man-made climate change is important to you and you happen to eat cheeseburgers, fish, chicken, and you love you some bacon, you're the worst part of the problem.

Food for thought.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Quote Of The Day: Brian Greene On Language And Reality


Don't confuse language with reality. Human language is far better at capturing human experience than at expressing deep physical laws.



All too often, we think that our language captures reality as it really is. We confuse the map for the territory all the time. Think of the property of solidity. Science tells us everything made of atoms is almost completely empty space. Solidity is just a property we experience at our human-level conscious experience of the world, but it is nowhere to be found at a fundamental level. The same is true with temperature, color, and even motion and the flow of time. None of these things truly exist, as we experience them, at a fundamental level. And so it's important to keep in mind that language doesn't always capture reality as it really is.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Entropy


I remember on the Thursday, two days before she died, walking home from work in the evening and looking west to the beautiful orange sunset, and hoping that the universe would spare me at least one more day to spend with her. I was terrified that she might have died when I was at work and that I'd come home to her corpse laying in some dark corner of my apartment. With fear, I unlocked the door to my apartment and was relieved to see her sitting on the bench of my exercise machine. She just stared at me, unmoved, as I took off my jacket and shoes. Usually she would come and greet me by the door and sniff all of my stuff and anticipate the food I would give her. But that Thursday was different. She just sat and watched me. I was just happy she was alive. I had Friday off, and so I knew I could spend all of the next day with her as I knew deep inside it would probably be her last few days alive. She was in pain, it seemed, but I just couldn't bring myself to take her to the vet as I knew she'd have to be put to sleep and at the time I just could not psychologically bear the thought of her being dead, even though I knew her imminent death was a near certainty.

She died the following Saturday on the couch right next to me. I never had anything close to me die before. I've been spared the deaths of any close family members and friends. So Sheba dying hit me hard. I keep replaying in my memory the tiny whimper she let out just moments before she died as she lay nearly motionless on the sofa next to me. And so as is generally customary, I had her cremated. I decided to keep her ashes, which I got a few weeks ago. I held them in my hand, astonished that this pile of disorganized matter used to by my adorable Sheba. But alas, I know it is no fiction that all things break down. All order eventually surrenders to disorder - it is the second law of thermodynamics. It will be my fate as well as yours, and it will also be the fate of the entire universe. Entropy eventually conquers all; some of us sooner than later.

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